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Since this is my first blog for Winemaker Magazine, perhaps a short introduction is in order. My name is Tim Vandergrift, and I live a life soaked in wine. My day job is Technical Services Manager for Winexpert, the largest wine kit manufacturer in the world. Before that I was the technical guy for RJ Spagnol’s, the second-largest manufacturer, and I’ve been doing this for nearly 20 years now. While the job is real enough, the title is pure malarkey.
The truth is I run a sort of anti-support group for problem winemakers. Unlike traditional support groups which encourage people to drop bad habits, change their lives and make a clean break from non-productive behaviours, I encourage people to embrace the spirit of home winemaking, to make that next kit, to build that cellar addition, to purchase that extra carboy, to serve wine with every meal (Gewürztraminer and granola is tastier than you’d think) and overall, to incorporate the gracious and delightful addition of wine into their lives. Note that I’m not encouraging people to consume more—just to consume their own.
It’s an uphill battle in some ways. While the modern wine kit (a bag of juice and concentrate shipped inside a cardboard box with yeast and processing aids) has been around since the early 1980’s, there are still many people who’ve never heard of kit wine. When they hear ‘homemade wine’ they visualise people up to their hips in vats of grape mush and cloth-capped olde worlde European types drinking cloudy purple brew out of jelly glasses topped up with 7-Up.
On the other hand, there are a lot of folks out there who make their own wine using grapes who wouldn’t be caught dead walking out of a winemaking supply shop with a kit. ‘Cheating’, they say, or ‘Can’t make good wine that way. Only grapes make good wine.’ Many of these folks fail to reconcile the fact that kit wines have won many thousands of medals in open competition with grape wines over the years. They also miss the point that kit wines are made from . . . grapes. Aside from processing aids like yeast and oak and finings, kit wines don’t contain a darned thing that doesn’t go into consumer produced grape and commercial wines every day.
But those folks aren’t my target demographic, so they don’t keep me awake at night. What does keep me awake is thinking that out there are those people who haven’t yet considered making their own wine at all. Quelle dommage! There’s one overwhelmingly great reason to make wine your self. A lot of folks might think, ‘price’, but while it might seem cool to make high-end single-vineyard wines for only three or four bucks a bottle, people who make their own wine don’t save money at all. In fact, almost all of them wind up spending more money on wine than they did before they took up the hobby.
Oh sure, they pay less per bottle, but like a lot of folks (including me), before they made their own wine they drank wine in what I call ‘North American’ style, saving it for special occasions, buying bottles shortly (in some cases only minutes) before they intended to consume them, and perhaps only keeping a few bottles on hand at a time, looking forward to the weekend or visitors.
When suddenly confronted with thirty—or sixty, or three hundred—bottles of wine in their basement or cellar, people suddenly switch over to a more European style of consumption: wine becomes as much a condiment to food as a beverage of occasion or intoxication. They start having wine with pot roast on Wednesdays, after work on Friday instead of a Martini, and most of all, they start to share it with everybody, taking bottles to friends, opening a bottle as soon as guests drop by and making batches just to give away.
The funniest thing I get to hear in my job, repeated, over and over (and funnier every darn time I hear it) comes from new winemakers who find out that a kit makes six US gallons (23 litres). “Oh no!’ they exclaim, “I’ll never drink thirty bottles! What will I do with all that wine?”
Six weeks later they’re back at the shop, declaring, “I’m completely out of wine. I have to start another one right away!”
Music to my ears, that is.
So welcome to my support group. In upcoming blogs I’ll talk about a wide range of kit-related topics: styles, processing tips, tweaks, hints, etc. There’s nothing as delicious as a wine you make yourself, and nothing better than sharing it with other people.
Would I Lie to you? Like a cheap rug, bay-bee.
“I'm not upset that you lied to me, I'm upset that from now on I can't believe you.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche
One of the most useful pieces of kit that a winemaker can have is a hydrometer. Simple devices, they are closed cylindrical glass tube weighted with steel shot at one end (steel, not mercury or lead like some sources claim). Inside the tube is a piece of paper with a scale of numbers, usually running from 0.990 to 1.100, in increments of 0.002. Because the sealed tube is hollow, it floats in liquid. Because it is weighted, the heavy end points down, ensuring that the scale is upright and readable.To use it, you carefully place it into your wine (works on beer too) and read the scale where the liquid touches the tube.
Many people, when asked what a hydrometer does, will answer, 'Measures alcohol'. Some will say, 'Measures sugar'. Neither answer is true. Hydrometers compare the the ratio of the density of the liquid to the density of water, and that's all. It's what we can do with this reading that's useful to us.
If we use a standard home winemaking hydrometer on our must before fermentation, the liquid will be very high in sugar, and thus will have a density higher than that of pure water. Depending on the wine type, it could by anywhere from 1.070 to 1.110 times as dense. After we pitch yeast and the fermentation is ongoing, the sugar will be metabolised into carbon dioxide and alcohol. As the sugar levels drop, the density of the must will go down and the hydrometer won't float quite as high. This drop shows us the progress of fermentation--which is why it's important to record the initial gravity reading, so you can compare it. More on this below.
As fermentation completes, all of the sugar is gone. It's normal to assume that the hydrometer would now read 1.000--without any sugar it should be only as dense as water. But that's not the case: alcohol is far less dense than water and since your wine is now somewhere between 10% and 16% alcohol, it's going to read lower--usually between 0.990 to 0.998.
In addition to demonstrating the point at which fermentation is complete, we can use the reading we initially recorded (told you there'd be more) and our final reading, along with a bit of math, to determine the alcohol content of the wine. You take the difference between the two readings and multiply it by 131. Don't worry about the 131--it's a derived number, just remember it.
For example, if your gravity started at 1.090 and the wine finished at 0.994, the difference between the two numbers is 0.096. Multiply 131 x 0.096 = 12.576, or about 12.6% Alcohol by volume. Pretty neat, no? There's a little chart, provided with each hydrometer, for applying temperature corrections (warmer liquids are less dense than cold ones) but for most purposes your wine will be the same temperature each time you measure it. What could be more accurate?
I've written about wine decanting and aeration in this space before, but I recently came across a very interesting take on pouring from an unlikely source: the porrón.
It would certainly reduce over-consumption, because I'd never hit my mouth
Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons
As stated by Wikipedia, A Porrón is a traditional glass wine pitcher, typical of Catalonia but famous throughout Spain. It resembles a cross between a wine bottle and a watering can. The top of the bottle is narrow and can be sealed off with a cork. Stemming upwards from the bottom of the pitcher is a spout that gradually tapers off to a small opening. Seems cool enough, and a cheerfully playful sort of decanter. It's design, however tries to minimise contact with air, and makes for pretty slow (if long-distance-capable) pouring
There are some moments, in the making of a wine
kit, when you could find yourself reconsidering what you're doing and wishing you hadn't started. Okay, that may be an exaggeration, but you might want to lift a
few weights or get your arms and lower back in shape before starting your first kit. Because
you're going to be doing quite a bit of stirring, and this doesn't mean a slow,
dreamy figure eight through the liquid a couple of times. Before you're done,
you'll have to stir till your teeth rattle.
The first thing you do with your kit is make it up to 6 gallons or 23 litres of total volume. But concentrates are very viscous, so unless you stir so them thoroughly into the
water, they'll tend to sink to the bottom. You'll have a less dense layer of
water infused by a thin gruel of concentrate sitting on top, with the thick,
gooey majority of the concentrate lurking like mud below. If these layers are
left like this, you'll get a weak fermentation on top, and none at all beneath,
resulting in a low-alcohol, high-sugar, thin-tasting wine.
Remember your aunt or your friend's grandmother,
who could make a perfect cake or dinner dish without ever following a recipe?
In making wine kits, of course that is NOT how you should approach things. Kit
instructions are very important, and every small step is there to make sure the
wine turns out beautifully. But those great cooks and their pioneer
predecessors can still be a smart object lesson for us home winemakers. They
weren't born knowing their recipes, after all, but learned by trial and error
until they discovered what worked.
And after all those trials, how did they remember
whether the cake worked better with a half cup of sugar or a quarter cup? They
wrote it down. Many of these early settlers used notebooks for keeping track of
experiments they made with each meal, recording what the results were. If
something went wrong, they'd know for sure what not to do again. And if
something turned out very well, they could reproduce the same result next time
or tweak it to taste even better.
That's why, as home winemakers, we need to write
everything down. Sometimes if a process doesn't occur when it's supposed to, or
something takes a lot longer to finish than it should, we can go back to our
notebooks and trace where the problem likely started. I might think, “Okay, I
shouldn't keep the wine at the lower end of the temperature scale next time.”
Or perhaps you'll discover, “The specific gravity hadn't quite reached the
needed level, and I started the next step too soon.”
Staphylococcus biofilm. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons
is next to goodliness in home winemaking. I’m not sure who said this, but the
crashing bore was completely correct: nothing can spoil a batch faster than
bacteria or wild yeast living on the remains of a previous effort. That’s why
winemakers are always vigilant with rinsing bottles after they’re empty, and
slosh sulphite around their equipment with great abandon. Keep your equipment
and bottles free of debris and treated with a bacterial suppressor like
sulphite solution and it will always be ready to go, right?
always—in fact this regimen can leave your equipment a cause of failure, rather
than a source of success. Simple rinsing may remove visible residues from
surfaces, but after repeated exposures to batch after batch of wine even the
ultra-smooth surfaces of glass carboys will develop an invisible layer of
colloids and proteins, sometimes described as a bio-film.
is analogous to the film that develops on your teeth. And, just as in keeping
carboys clean, if you only rinsed your mouth after eating, and perhaps took a
swish of mouthwash, you would, in a very short period, find yourself with a
serious oral hygiene issue.
soaking equipment in quite powerful oxidising cleansers (chlorine-based
powders, peroxides or bleach) or powerful reductive agents (sodium
hydroxide/caustic soda) won’t completely remove biofilms. This requires the
mechanical action of scrubbing to remove the film. Again, we can go back to
teeth: even if you rinsed with very strong mouthwash, you still need the
mechanical action of brushing to remove the debris from tooth surfaces to be
One of the
ways I’ve illustrated this in the past is a demonstration I did with a very
high-volume consumer winemaker. He had made hundreds of batches of wine over a
period of a couple of years (big extended family, thirsty friends, lots of
parties—he was very popular!) He was methodical, thorough and meticulously
clean, but he had thought that a few minutes soaking with cleansers and
sulphite treatment was enough. I got him to use a very specific cleaner,
Diversol BX/A, a pink powder sold under a variety of trade names. It’s a very
powerful oxidising cleaner that also contains detergents, surfactants and
potassium permanganate. At my direction he soaked all of his carboys in a
strong solution for 20 minutes, scrubbed them with a brush and left them
overnight. In the morning when he saw the layer of muck—it looked like sticky
brown algae—in the bottom of his carboys, he was convinced of the power of
scrubbing, if not a little queasy.
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